Recently, former student-athletes have announced lawsuits against Northwestern University’s football program. This news comes after the program’s football coach is put on suspension. This hazing scandal has the potential to be the biggest in college sports history due to the sheer number of athletes impacted.
Attorney Ben Crump said in a press release, “This is the opportunity to eradicate hazing and abuse in college athletic programs from coast to coast. This will undoubtedly be the #MeToo movement of college athletics.”
Schools must prioritize the safety of every student to ensure an education free from violence. Although all hazing doesn’t always manifest as sexual abuse, it is rooted in the same power dynamics that reinforce violent norms that can lead to sexual harm. Thus, it is crucial to recognize the behavior that constitutes hazing and how it fosters a toxic environment on college campuses.
What is hazing?
When you join a new sports team or extracurricular group on a college campus, there is often an emphasis on bonding activities to “earn your spot” and build camaraderie through overcoming challenges. While bonding with new people is essential to foster social relationships and perpetuate positive team dynamics, hazing takes these ideas too far.
Hazing acts are often humiliating and perpetrated by an imbalance of power (ex., Senior to freshman). The NCAA defines hazing as “any act committed against someone joining or becoming a member or maintaining membership in any organization that is humiliating, intimidating or demeaning, or endangers the health and safety of the person. Hazing includes active or passive participation in such acts and occurs regardless of the willingness to participate in the activities. Hazing creates an environment/climate in which dignity and respect are absent.”
Hazing on college campuses is not limited to the athletic world. It is seen in fraternities and sororities of Greek life and more. For student-athletes, 74% experience at least one form of hazing while in college, while male college students who are 18-24 are 5x more likely to experience sexual violence compared to their peers who do not attend college.
Unfortunately, hazing among sports teams is nothing new. Schools such as Penn State, Havard, New Mexico State, and even high schools have had their own incidents of sexual violence in hazing methods. While most reported hazing includes drinking, #MeToo has prompted male survivors to share their own stories of abuse on a college campus, specifically within hazing culture. Oftentimes, general hazing goes unreported, but especially in cases that involve sexual abuse.
So what are elements of hazing to look out for?
Coercion uses pressure or manipulation to force someone to do something they do not want to do. It can utilize tactics such as shaming, ultimatums, or withholding access to something (such as social acceptance, time on the field, etc.) as punishment for not engaging in the activities they want you to take part in. Coercion can take many forms, including persuading people to ingest substances they do not want to take, engaging in illegal activities they would not usually do, or even engaging in sexual acts they do not consent to. If you notice you feel pressured to do something that is against your values, this might be a warning sign that you may be in an environment with potential coercion.
- Threats & Rewards
Threats and rewards can be used to silence individuals who experience harm through hazing or incentivize people to be complacent or cover up harm when it occurs. Upperclassmen, coaches, and people of influence can use the power dynamics within higher education to threaten students with things like reduced playing time, isolation from social activities, and even physical punishment if they do not go along with hazing. On the other hand, rewards can incentivize people to go along with toxic cultures or to agree to things that they would not normally do. No matter the scope of the threat or reward, these actions can add up to create a culture of tolerance of harm when it occurs.
Intimidation uses power and control over an individual through looks, actions, words, and gestures. This could be displayed by smashing things, destroying property, and even use of weapons. When individuals are subjected to intimidation, they may experience fear, anxiety, and a sense of powerlessness, creating an atmosphere of coercion and control.
In hazing situations, perpetrators often employ intimidation tactics to exert dominance over newcomers or less powerful members. These tactics can include verbal threats, aggressive behavior, or even the manipulation of social dynamics to isolate and target specific individuals.
By definition and historical practice, hazing reinforces a power structure that either grants or rejects individuals’ membership in response to their “performance.” While it is created to humiliate and degrade, hazing consequently bonds individuals and hierarchies. Hazing as a foundation leads to a dangerous impact and precedent. Whether it is through substance exposure, violence, or sexual abuse — hazing to bond teams, friends, or social circles is a myth and a contributor to rape culture on college campuses.
Recognizing warning signs is crucial to prevent hazing, as it highlights the potential for harmful and abusive practices that can harm those involved’s well-being and psychological safety. Addressing such warning signs early on is essential in fostering a culture of respect, inclusivity, and support within any organization or community.